CHARLOTTE, N.C — CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Debra Lyles strides briskly about Central Piedmont Community College, her head high, her left hand gripping the harness of her guide dog Treasure.
fTC She was 5 when a playground accident took her sight. Now she's 33, a divorced mother of three.
Ms. Lyles once was a teacher's aide in a class for the mentally retarded. She tried working as a salesclerk but couldn't find bar codes. Now she is unemployed.
She always wanted to be a lawyer. In six years, she plans to be one. It's a long haul from the community college to the University of North Carolina at Charlotte to law school, but she says, "Determination will get me where I want to go."
Seven of every 10 blind people in this country who want to work have no jobs, according to the 50,000-member National Federation of the Blind.
About 3,000 members met in Charlotte this week for the Baltimore-based federation's annual convention. Their top priority: helping blind people join the work force in jobs that use all of their abilities and accommodate their disabilities.
Convention-goers include lawyers, engineers, an auto-body repairer, mathematicians, government officials, computer programmers, teachers, a marine biologist, magazine editors and reporters, pharmacists and unemployed people from all 50 states.
They gather four weeks before the Americans with Disabilities Act takes effect, requiring employers nationwide to provide reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities.
"The fundamental problem confronting the blind is not lack of sight," said Barbara Pierce, the federation's public education director. "It is the lack of adequate training, education and employment opportunity.
"That is not to say I am going to become a brain surgeon or fly a plane, but there are jobs that I can do."
The problem, Ms. Pierce said, is that many employers simply look at a job, close their eyes and think, "A blind person can't do this. No sighted person who closes his eyes could have any notion about how a blind person uses sound and touch."
Now, because of the Americans with Disabilities Act, Ms. Pierce said, sighted people must rethink jobs, thinking of ways blind people can do them rather than reasons they can't.
"If we can't do the jobs we have tried," she said, "the solution should be the same as a sighted person. Fire us. It's a tough way to go, but it is even more painful and cruel to deny a person the opportunity to test his or her limits."
The weeklong convention includes job fairs, discussions of workplace problems, and sessions on the Americans with Disabilities Act and the fight for federal minority status for the blind. That would qualify businesses owned by blind people for Small Business Administration money.
It's not all about jobs and money. The convention also includes such things as seminars for teachers and parents of blind children.
There are 6 million blind and severely visually impaired people in the United States, according to the federation.